A few days ago, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote this really lengthy piece over at The Atlantic about a case for reparations to African-Americans for all the damages done to them, which apparently has garnered some attention. African-Americans dealt with slavery in the founding days of this country up until the end of the Civil War. After emancipation, they then had to put up with Jim Crow and Plessy v. Ferguson's "separate but equal" dreck. America's past is filled with discrimination towards African-Americans, not to mention there was a whole civil rights movement to attempt to rectify it. Heck, there can still be a case made that discrimination and racism are lodged against African-Americans to this very day. Because of "the enduring legacy of our country's shameful history of treating black people as sub-citizens, sub-Americans, and sub-humans," Coates argues that all this wrongdoing is a basis for reparations. After looking at the piece, it sounds compelling and it certainly is distressing to read about the level of discrimination that African-Americans had to endure, but what Coates fails to realize is that forcing non-African-Americans to pay reparations to African-Americans isn't that simple.
Coates tries to analogize what happened between the Jews during the Holocaust and what happened to African-Americans. From Coates' point of view, this example sets precedence. The difference with the Holocaust example is that at least the individuals themselves were still alive to receive compensation from the German government. The African-Americans who were enslaved are deceased, as are their children. With the case of reparations for African-Americans, it would be the descendants who receive the reparations, not those directly affected by slavery. Even when using the example of imprisoning Japanese-Americans in internment camps during World War II, although 1988 was too long to wait [in terms of righting a wrong], it was not so late where the victims themselves could not be recompensed. As I will bring up later, if we are going to recompense anyone who has indirectly been affected by a past injustice, it's going to get messy really quickly.
Another example in America's short history that could be used for reparations is with regards to Native Americans. Native Americans have received monetary compensation for the lands ceded to the United States government. Using the Native Americans as an example for precedence has two shortcomings. The first is that the Native Americans have always been dealt with as tribes and nations, not as individuals. From a legal standpoint, the courts are enforcing treaties that were signed long ago. African-Americans do not have such legal standing or recourse. Second, the federal government has been mismanaging the lives of Native Americans for about two centuries now, and has done a bang-up job keeping Native Americans in a trap of poverty as a result. Do we want the government to subject another minority group? I think not.
For argument's sake, let's say that in spite of the previous paragraphs, we want to make the argument that the moral case for granting reparations in this day in age is perfectly justifiable. You still come across the greatest hurdle to accomplishing this: implementation. Trying to determine who receives them and who has to pay reparations would be an absolute nightmare.
Let's start with who would be recompensed. First, have fun trying to trace the genealogy of nearly 45 million African-Americans in this country. Even if one is able to accomplish this enormous undertaking, which would cost millions of taxpayer dollars and man-hours, the levels of victimization would be nigh impossible to identify, especially if you want identify any victimization perpetrated post-empancipation. There is also the issue of a number of African-Americans having some Caucasian descent within their gene pool, including our current president. Does a certain percentage of Caucasian ancestry negate being qualified for reparations? What about Caucasians who are a sixty-fourth or a hundred twenty-eighth African who happen to have a former slave in the family tree? If we are to look for Caucasians who have a small percentage of African ancestry, then we have to open up the investigations even more.
Let's continue with those who would have to pay because this facet brings in even more nuance. Should those who pay the reparations need to be individuals who directly benefited from this slave labor or indirectly? Let's first hypothesize by saying "those who directly benefited." When I say "directly benefited," I don't mean those who did the enslaving and economically benefited. Those individuals are long gone. Who I mean in this case are the descendants of slave owners, although I think it's unfair to punish individuals for what wrongs their ancestors committed because the descendants are not responsible for what their ancestors did. The kvetch from proponents is that "the United States built its wealth on the backs of slaves." From an economic standpoint, I would call that a tenuous overstatement because using slave labor to manage huge plantations was highly inefficient. Those in the South who managed plantations had shaky finances prior to the abolishment of slavery. The North, which used free labor instead of slave labor, had much more economic growth than the South. Should it be surprising that the region in the country that used slavery as a basis for its economy is still paying the price by being the least developed region in the country?
In terms of who directly benefited from slavery, we can take a more historical and more global look. For one, slavery was not a uniquely American institution. Not that I am justifying the institution by any means, but slavery was a universal institution for the longest time, and there were other slave trades, such as that of Brazil, ancient Rome, or the Arab slave trade, that were considerably worse. More to the point, the Atlantic slave trade was not merely an American operation. It involved many actors on an international level, which not only included European powers, but even neighboring tribes who helped capture other Africans. Do you really want to take other countries to international courts to try to get the monetary compensation sorted out?
Now how about those who indirectly benefited? The term commonly used for this indirect benefit is "white privilege." The theory behind "white privilege" is that even though Caucasians in this country did not directly benefit from slave labor, they still had a societal advantage because of the prejudices and racism that exist towards those of color. Using the whiteness of one's skin as a basis for paying reparations is not only racist, it's also unfair. What about those Caucasians whose ancestors were abolitionists or fought the South in the Civil War? What about those whose ancestors immigrated to America after the Civil War? What about Caucasian ancestors who were also discriminated against, such as the Jews or the Irish? What about those whose ancestors stood aside African-Americans during the Civil Rights movement? Is it fair to make them pay reparations when their ancestors helped? It's reasonable to assume that forcing Caucasians to pay a tax to recompense for slavery simply based on the color of their skin would only increase racial hostility.
Additionally, there is the matter of the price tag of reparations. As explained above, it would take a lot of resources to determine ancestry, validity of grievances, as well as monetizing wrongdoings. Even if that all were done, do you think it's a good idea to pay millions of African-Americans reparations when this country is dealing with its own debt issues? The political feasibility to front up all this money to recompense is simply not in the cards. There is also the question of just how much the federal government has attempted to undo the wrongs with monetary compensation. For instance, African-Americans make up a disproportionate amount of the recipients for food stamps, TANF, and Medicaid (although to be fair, they are underrepresented in receiving retirement benefits for Social Security). And let's not forget the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or affirmative action. Whether we discuss if the government should be involved in undoing past wrongs, if it has done a good job, or whether it can do a good job, we can't say that there are still certain imbalances and discrimination because the government didn't try to undo some of the wrongs.
Even if we were to argue that the government should be in the business of undoing the wrongs of racial discrimination, there are some questions we have to ask ourselves. If the government is to recompense for these wrongs, how about recompensing the LGBT community for the discrimination they have undergone in this country? How about what the Irish, Chinese, or other groups of immigrants of what they had to endure when they first arrived in this country? If we want to go even further back, can Jews around the world sue Egypt for the slavery they endured during biblical times? Where do we draw the line? There have been so many people wronged in history. Where would it end? It would be impossible to recompense African-Americans for a wrong that occurred 150 years ago. If the freed slaves would have been compensated shortly after the Civil War, which would have logistically and practically been the most appropriate time to recompense them, they very well could have taken on a different life, which could very well have given their descendants a different future. We can't go back in time and properly compensate those who were wronged from the onset of the problem.
Reparations would do nothing to improve race relations, and if anything, they would only be exacerbated. Rather than looking back, we should be looking forward to see how we could help African-Americans, and indeed all Americans, live a better life. If we are too look at how to specifically improve upon the lives of African-Americans to help mitigate some of the inequalities (because let's face it, there's going to be some sort of inequality in society regardless), although I'm sure I can come up with a comprehensive list, two ideas come to mind. One is more school vouchers for African-American students so they can have better access to high-quality education and don't feel trapped by the public school system. The second is to stop the War on Drugs. I say this because a disproportionate amount of those thrown in jail as a result are African-American. One in three African-Americans is expected to be in jail at some point in their lifetime, and the War on Drugs undoubtedly plays a pivotal role in this incarceration rate. It is more difficult to have a stable family life when one of the parents is in jail. Rather than throwing money at the problem with reparations, what we should focus on are policies that will empower African-Americans to live the American dream.